Travel in Europe Without hotel Reservations

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While most travelers prefer to nail down room reservations long in advance, you can blow like the wind freely through Europe if you want, finding beds on the fly.

Your approach to room-finding will be determined by whether it's a "buyer's market" or a "seller's market" — based on the current demand. These trends can be obvious (a beach resort will be crowded in summer, empty in winter); in other cases, a guidebook or local tourist information office can tip you off. Sometimes you can arrive late, be selective, and even talk down the price. Other times you'll happily accept anything with a pillow and a blanket.

These tricks work for me:

Travel with a good list of hotels. Even the most footloose and fancy-free traveler shouldn't totally wing it. Bring along a good guidebook so you at least have a sense of your options (and the general price range in town) when you begin your search.

The early bird gets the room. When you anticipate crowds (weekends are worst) on the day you want to check in, call or arrive at the hotel at about 9 or 10 a.m., when the receptionist knows who’ll be checking out and which rooms will be available. For instance, I would leave Florence at 7 a.m. to arrive in popular, crowded Venice early enough to get a decent choice of rooms. If the rooms aren't ready until noon, take one anyway. Leave your luggage behind the desk; you can relax and enjoy the city, then move in later. Consider the advantage of overnight train rides — you'll arrive, if not bright, at least early.

Shop around. When going door-to-door, the first place you check is rarely the best. It's worth 20 minutes of shopping around to find the going rate before you accept a room. You'll be surprised how prices vary as you walk farther from the station or down a street strewn with B&Bs. Never judge a hotel by its exterior or lobby. Lavish interiors with shabby exteriors are a cultural trait of Europe (blame the landlord who's stuck with rent control and therefore doesn't invest in fixing it up, not the hotel). If you're traveling with a companion, one of you can watch the bags over a cup of coffee while the other runs around.

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